I was driving leisurely across town six weeks ago when I first saw the giant green banner draped across the front of Richmond’s Landmark Theater:
VIDEO GAMES LIVE – Saturday, April 25
Pedestrians hurled themselves to the sidewalks as I floored the accelerator, suddenly in a race against time to get home and to ticketmaster.com.
For the uninitiated, Video Games Live is a symphony concert featuring video game music of all eras. From Asteroids and Defender to Zelda and Halo, the best sounds and songs of gaming are given full body by a live classical orchestra and accompanying thirty-person choir.
I first heard about the show in 2005 when creators Jack Wall and Tommy Tallarico staged the inaugural performance in Hollywood. As the concert has grown and even moved on tour, I have waited for my chance to attend a performance, but I never expected to be able to do so right here in Richmond, Virginia. It was with great excitement that I bought my tickets that afternoon, and after finally seeing the show this past weekend, I’m even more excited to say that it did not disappoint.
Wall and Tallarico have a massive music catalogue to draw upon, and they take full advantage. Richmond was the 100th performance of VGL (w00t!), and yet no two shows have had the same set list! Here is the list of songs from April 25th, 2009:
Classic Arcade medley (w/ Richmond Symphony Chorus)
Metal Gear Solid (w/ RSC)
God of War (w/ RSC and soloist Claudia Carroll)
Civilization IV (w/ RSC and soloists Jane Riddle & Scott Meadows)
Final Fantasy Piano Solo (Martin Leung)
Sonic (w/ RSC)
Warcraft (w/ RSC)
Mario (w/ RSC)
Mario Piano Solo (Martin Leung)
Chrono Cross/Chrono Trigger
Interactive Guitar Hero event (w/ RSC)
Halo Suite and Halo 3 (w/ RSC)
One Winged Angel (Final Fantasy VII) (w/ RSC)
As a wee bit of a Nintendo sycophant, the highlights of the show for me were hearing the soul-stirring Zelda theme in full symphonic glory and marveling at the talent of Martin Leung, aka “Video Game Pianist.”
Leung was still a teenager when he achieved universal college dorm room fame in 2004. A video of the blindfolded Leung playing music from Super Mario Bros. on the piano appeared on the Internet, and was soon viewed 40 million times. One year later, the Video Game Pianist had accepted an offer to join Video Games Live.
Videos of Martin Leung can now be seen all over the Web, but nothing quite compares to witnessing him bang out flawless renditions of Final Fantasy and Super Mario tunes, grinning like a blindfolded Cheshire Cat. Just when I thought a piano could not possibly be played any faster, cheers of appreciation from the audience encouraged Leung to kick it up another notch. A standing ovation confirmed that the kid was a hit with everyone in attendance; games and non-gamers alike.
Which brings me to the surprising diversity of the crowd. I expected to find only game geeks and cosplayers at VGL, but I was in fact surrounded by people of all ages and descriptions. From bouncing school children to couples on dates to older patrons of the arts, an eclectic crowd packed the Landmark Theater. I saw one married couple that had to be in their seventies, dressed in full formal wear, showing what looked like a true appreciation for the music of God of War.
When it comes to broad appeal, it helps that the show’s production level ranges from fantastic to absolutely awe-inspiring. During most song elections, three giant video screens on stage displayed scenes from the games being highlighted. Some of the video selections could have been tightened up (the Mario set included clips from what seemed like every game that has ever included the plumber) but the clips usually complemented the music nicely, and the show’s visual aspects often took the concert to another level.
During Metal Gear Solid, a cardboard box snuck stealthily onto stage, followed closely by an armed military guard. When a lit exclamation point suddenly appeared over the guard’s head, the audience loudly expressed their appreciation for this attention to detail. Similarly, well-selected clips of Final Fantasy VII’s villainous Sephiroth reignited emotional memories during the encore performance of One Winged Angel.
After years of hearing about this show, Video Games Live lived up to the hype. I walked out of the theater high on nostalgia and eager to hurry home and play some games. As I loaded Mass Effect that night in my apartment, I reached over and turned up the speakers a few extra notches. With VGL’s ever-evolving set list, this just might be the music I rock to the next time the show comes to town.